By now, many wine drinkers are accustomed to ordering malbec, currently Argentina’s signature wine. But how many know or have even heard of bonarda, Argentina’s second most important red wine grape? As recently as 25 years ago, it was Argentina’s most popular red grape, as growers planted it after they ripped out malbec. That stopped as growers realized malbec’s potential. But they are still planting bonarda because they realize that it, too, has potential to make unique wine.
It’s a grape found in few locales. Northern Italians refer to several varieties as bonarda and consumers will see some hefty Italian wines called by that name, but most experts believe the Italian and Argentine versions are distinct. No matter, even if you count the Italians, the Argentines still have six times more bonarda planted.
Bonarda has some similarities to zinfandel — lots of fruit and spice without a tannic backbone. But unlike California zinfandel producers, many Argentine winemakers capture bonarda’s intensity and flavor while keeping the alcohol reasonable, in the 13 percent range.
The Armando family started its wine business almost immediately after immigrating to Argentina from Northern Italy in 1886. The family planted bonarda in what is now the Estela Armando vineyard 40 years ago. The age of the vineyard helps explain the exceptional quality of the wine, since mature vines generally produce higher-quality grapes. Wines from a single vineyard are still an exception in Argentina, where growers are fearful that localized hail storms can destroy the entire crop. They opt not to put all their eggs in one basket and prefer to make wine by blending the juice from grapes grown in vineyards spread over several areas.
I am glad La Posta del vinatero (literally, the inn of the winemaker) decided not to blend the juice from Armando’s grapes with others in 2003 and dilute their engaging black fruit and smoky flavors. Despite its intensity, La Posta’s 2003 bonarda does not come across as a heavy wine. Its acidity helps keep it lively and assures it remains fresh, not boring, throughout the meal. La Posta del vinatero, Bonarda, Estela Armando Vineyard, 2003. About $17. Distributed by Central Distributing Co., 508-755-0360, and Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.
September 1, 2005.